At this point, the name John Cassavetes is so intrinsically linked to the American independent film movement that it can be easy to take for granted how seamlessly he could have taken an alternate route through Hollywood and potentially gone on to far greater fame and fortune. His landmark, self-financed debut feature, Shadows, may have turned out to be a career harbinger, but it certainly wasn't a financial success. Cassavetes spent most of the 1950s acting in various television shows and Hollywood motion pictures just to raise the money to eventually shoot Shadows, which languished undistributed in the U.S. for two years, until 1959 when the film played sparsely in major markets and Paramount Pictures took heed of enough critical notices and visible talent to recruit the young filmmaker for an unspecified studio project.
The project turned out to be a vehicle for classic lounge crooner Bobby Darin, whose popularity among young adults was at an all-time high and through whom the studio saw a potentially substantial box-office return. The results were presumably not what the studio had in mind. Working from script he co-wrote with Richard Carr and with a budget somewhere in the vicinity of $375,000 (an astronomical amount for Cassavetes, coming off a $40,000 investment with Shadows), Too Late Blues courted melodrama in a fashion that Cassavetes would let run free in subsequent films, but with Darin in the unlikable role of a ideologically intent band leader in submission to a young female singer (the ravishing Stella Singer), and thus in betrayal of his jazz quintet, the film perhaps brought too much reality to its romanticized lead pairing.
Of course, that Too Late Blues stands as a solid, admirable example of early-'60s studio filmmaking is the grand irony that audiences continually have to reconcile with regard to the Hollywood system, as many other—even better—examples continue to remain out of visibility. So, despite the film's relative financial failure, it begs to reason that Cassavetes could have easily continued his career as a hired-gun helmer or a kind of last-gasp experiment as a contract player. And indeed, Cassavetes would take on another studio project—one that he didn't get the opportunity to write himself and one of equal curiosity—the following year, called A Child Is Waiting. But for its part, Too Late Blues remains a fascinating work in the filmmaker's early career, its simmering emotion and blunt illustrations of male camaraderie spilling forth from the impressionable filmmaker in a manner similar to what he would soon turn into his stock and trade.
Compared to the uncomfortably intimate moments in Shadows and the raw relationship ruckuses of his next two independent features, Faces and Husbands, Too Late Blues can play unfortunately curbed, with concessions made to a variety of demographics it had no chance of fulfilling. But detailed touches and restless stylistic flourishes paint the edges of the film at consistent enough intervals to mark the film as a nascently personal if opportune project for a filmmaker developing his voice as an artist. In fact, Cassavetes's reputation as an improviser and an intuitively creative personality finds a logical outlet in film's jazz ensemble, their casual, downtempo riffs and percolating syncopations mirroring his instinctive approach to craft. A couple of bar scuffles, an impromptu baseball sequence, and a climatic bathroom suicide attempt (filmed from the point of view of the sink) all emerge spontaneously, coloring the film with a personality not often present in the studio work of Cassavetes's contemporaries.
Even at this early stage, Cassavetes was able to elicit fine performances from his cast. Yet to establish his renowned stable of actors (though Seymour Cassel does debut here, ensuring at least a bit of similarity to subsequent works), Cassavetes works naturally with his stars, finding moments of sympathy in Darin's cocky embodiment of John "Ghost" Wakefield and a humble humanism beneath the perfect façade of Stevens's Jess Polanski. And it's the quiet, modest moments between the two that eventually endear these characters despite their outwardly prickly appearance. In due time, Cassavetes would carve a rich career through honest and extremely candid depictions of just such characters. But the boiling tensions and sloppy intimacy of everyday life was skirting the margins of realization even here, kicking and screaming below the surface, just waiting to spill over and galvanize a career that took many routes but arrived at a place as pure and sincere as any the cinema itself has realized.
Olive Films unassumingly debuts Too Late Blues for the first time in any digital format with a modest Blu-ray package. The image is presented in 1080p and is rendered cleanly if not consistently as sharp as one might expect of a studio picture from the era. Being a single-layer disc, there's only a certain height the transfer can reach, but nonetheless a light sprinkling of grain is visible and the black levels of the musician's suits pop consistently through the otherwise grey-scale palette. The film's original 1.78:1 aspect ratio is preserved and overall looks quite acceptable, without any damage or distracting celluloid marks.
Audio is nicely transferred via a mono DTS track, coming through crisp and clear at any given moment. There's plenty of music and singing in the film, and each note rings out robustly, faithfully capturing some of the instrumental interplay between the ensemble. The rough-and-tumble fight sequences further showcase the range of the track, with everything within the sound field properly separated and highlighted when called upon. Dialogue, meanwhile, is balanced and easily understood, of particular note since English subtitles (or subtitles of any kind for that matter) are not offered.
While it's gracious of Olive Films to finally bring Too Late Blues to a wide audience, there's nothing presented to help contextualize the film for those unfamiliar with this brief stopover in John Cassavetes's career, as supplements are not included.
Debuting for the first time in any digital format, John Cassavetes's first of only two studio films, Too Late Blues, arrives on Blu-ray devoid of supplements, but still simmering with the nascent emotion and turmoil that would come to mark the career of the independent iconoclast. [Slant]